Leading article: With voters in a mood to punish, the chance of a lifetime has been lost

Share
Related Topics

There was one conspicuous winner and one conspicuous loser from Thursday's elections and the historic referendum.

And the contrasting fortunes say much about the state of politics and the mood of voters one year after the general election produced the UK's first post-war coalition government. There is elation for some, but bitter disappointment for all of us who had hoped for so long for electoral reform.

The far and away winner from the elections was Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party. Mr Salmond commands admiration as one of the most accomplished politicians, not just north of the border, but beyond. That he led his party to an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament from almost certain defeat just a month ago is a tribute to his competitive instincts and campaigning skills. But it also reflects the positive record he was able to present to Scottish voters. In Nicola Spurling and others, he also had competent and loyal lieutenants.

In a move that might give David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats retrospective pause for thought, Mr Salmond had taken the risk of leading a minority government. To legislate, he built the alliances he needed. The challenge for the SNP now will be to preserve the consensual way of operating that Scotland appears to like, while taking advantage of its position as a majority government.

The SNP's manifesto promise to hold a referendum on Scottish independence before the end of the new Parliament could prove a bugbear here. If, as it appears at present, Scots would like just a bit more fiscal independence without going the whole hog, Mr Salmond's ambition for full sovereignty could become a liability. Then again, in today's politics, canniness, competence and strength of character count for a lot.

It could be said that it was the lack of such qualities that made the Liberal Democrats, and above all their leader, Nick Clegg, the big election losers. The referendum on the alternative vote, on which they had staked so much, looks to have been thoroughly lost. They were routed in local council elections in the north of England, being overtaken by Labour in Sheffield and losing seats across the board in Liverpool and Manchester. Mr Clegg was not completely wrong to plead in mitigation that the Liberal Democrats took all the punishment for budget cuts because the Conservatives had so few seats in the north to lose. The difficulty with this argument is that elsewhere the Conservative vote held up unexpectedly well, and voters roundly rejected the argument for AV.

The sad truth is that the Liberal Democrats were punished not just for being in government, but for being Liberal Democrats in government – perhaps for being in government at all. And the roots of their defeat – a defeat on all fronts – reflect Mr Clegg's failure to shake off the early charges of betrayal. Entering a coalition as a junior partner necessarily demands compromise. For erstwhile Liberal Democrat voters, however, Mr Clegg's compromises went too far and – unlike Mr Salmond – he was incapable of mounting a convincing defence. Backtracking on the manifesto promise to abolish student tuition fees became a particular source of resentment, if only because that one pledge had persuaded so many to vote Liberal Democrat.

***

Provisional figures show that most of the Liberal Democrats' losses were Labour gains, but not enough to bring serious cheer to Ed Miliband. Defeat in Scotland was a bitter blow – acknowledged by the Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, who dutifully fell on his sword. In Wales, Labour fell short of an overall majority, and in council elections elsewhere, the party did little more than recoup losses from four years before, when it was at a particularly low ebb. The evidence is less of a "bounce" from Mr Miliband's leadership than of a return to earlier loyalties by those who had flirted with the Liberal Democrats.

The drama now passes from Scotland, where Mr Salmond is safely ensconced, to Westminster, where the authority of Nick Clegg, the dynamics of the Coalition, and perhaps even its survival, are suddenly in question. Just a year after that election with an equivocal outcome, the uncertainties have suddenly become more and not less.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices